Four Nigerian women made history this month in PyeongChang. Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga became the first-ever Olympic bobsled team from the entire continent of Africa. Simidele Adeagbo became the first female skeleton athlete to compete for Nigeria. But their success is more representative of their individual national pride than it is of progress for women athletes in Nigeria.
Adigun, Onwumere, and Omeoga may represent Nigeria in the Olympic Games, but they were born in the United States. Adeagbo was born in Canada and trained in the U.S. They chose to represent their nation of origin instead of competing as American athletes. Nigerian media gave little attention to the bobsled team in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games .
Men’s sports still fill most athletic news headlines in Nigeria, even when female athletes like Adigun, Onwumere, and Omeoga qualify for the Olympic games in a discipline that African men have yet to qualify for. In the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the Nigerian women’s track team won a bronze medal. Nigerian media celebrated them after they won. But until they had earned that medal, they received next to no national recognition or support .
Discrimination against female athletes in Nigeria begins at the grade-school level. Often, it’s the parents who discourage their girls from playing sports. Young girls are told that sports are for men, that if they play sports they will look too “masculine,” and that spending too much time on athletics will limit their prospects for marriage and motherhood . Women in Nigeria are expected to be submissive, not to challenge their male counterparts, in sports or otherwise (DMW-PRACTICE-1).
This negative social pressure follows female athletes to the professional level, in addition to added economic pressure. There is little government funding for women’s sports, and female athletes are paid less than male athletes. They face pressure to have children and begin a family, something that is very difficult, though not impossible, to do while competing professionally .
Marriage in Nigeria is nearly universal, and only women who are married are respected in society (MARR-PRACTICE-2). Unmarried women are marginalized and isolated from the community, regardless of the circumstances leading to their unmarried status (MARR-PRACTICE-2).
Married women are expected to have children, and voluntary childlessness is rare in Nigeria (BR-PRACTICE-2). In fact, childless women often face prejudice and suspicion of witchcraft (BR-PRACTICE-2). According to the SMS World Values Survey and the DHS Survey, 90 percent of Nigerians feel that women need to have children (BR-PRACTICE -2), and married women report an ideal family size of 7.1 children (BR-PRACTICE-1).
Women who choose to have families encounter challenges of their own. Many married women in Nigeria are unable to seek full-time employment (including professional athletes) because of family responsibility and childcare (MULV-PRACTICE-1, ATFPA-PRACTICE-1).
Female participation in sports matters because athletic activities have major physical, emotional, and social benefits. Sports help increase women’s participation in public life and community development. Girls who play sports gain confidence and a sense of belonging and community .
What will help Nigeria make progress for its female athletes? More female coaches and female athletic role models could help. Women representing Nigeria like Adigun, Onwumere, Omeoga, and Adeagbo can have an influence on aspiring young female athletes, even though they were not born and raised there. Education is another factor that can help, especially teaching women about their rights and how to deal with harassment.
Most importantly, it’s up to the parents to teach each new generation of girls to pursue whatever interests them, to deconstruct gender stereotypes, and to encourage their daughters to play sports – all kinds of sports.
Perhaps then, Nigerian female athletes will receive the support, encouragement and funding they deserve from the very beginning, and not only after they’ve proven time and time again that they more than merit it.
Variables: DMW-PRACTICE-1, MARR-PRACTICE-2, BR-PRACTICE-1, BR-PRACTICE-2, MULV-PRACTICE-1, ATFPA-PRACTICE-1
- Akinwotu, Emmanuel & Rich, Motoko. “Bobsled Team Represents Nigeria Loosely, but Women Truly.” New York Times. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/sports/olympics/nigeria-bobsled.html
- Young, Henry. “Simi Adeagbo: “In life, as in the skeleton, you have to take the hits.'” CNN. 2018. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/14/sport/nigeria-winter-olympics-skeleton-simi-adeagbo/index.html
- Olofinlua, Temitayo. “Women’s World Cup Begins, Female Athletes in Nigeria Demand Equality in Sports.” Global Press Journal. 2012. https://globalpressjournal.com/africa/nigeria/women-s-world-cup-begins-female-athletes-in-nigeria-demand-equality-in-sports/